By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana churches and many businesses currently limited to half of their usual capacity as part of the effort to control the spread of COVID-19 will be allowed to move to 75 percent starting this weekend, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday.
Sporting events can be held under the new “phase three” guidelines, but crowds will be limited to 25 percent of normal capacity and serving alcohol is not allowed. Live music still is not allowed.
Bars across most of the state still will be closed to on-premise consumption. In parishes where the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is less than 5 percent for 14 days, parish governments can allow barrooms to open but with several restrictions. Currently only five parishes meet this standard: Bienville, Jefferson Davis, Orleans, St. John and Plaquemines. However, bars won’t open in New Orleans yet because Mayor LaToya Cantrell says her city will stay in phase two for now.
Where bars are open, capacity is limited to 25 percent or up to 50 people indoors and 50 people outdoors, and only table service is allowed. Last call for alcohol will be 10 p.m. anywhere alcohol is served.
Casinos remain limited to 50 percent capacity. The mask mandate remains in place.
Nursing home visits generally will not be allowed. However, the health department plans to roll out a pilot program to allow visits for homes with no recent COVID-19 cases that are in parishes with low incidence of community spread.
The new order will be in place for 28 days, Edwards said. While tweaks are possible, and restrictions may be tightened if a spike in new cases threatens the state’s ability to deliver health care, there isn’t much room to loosen restrictions further while COVID-19 remains a significant threat, he said.
“We don’t go from 75 percent to 100 percent until the pandemic is over,” Edwards said.
The precise rules governing how businesses will operate under phase three were not yet available Friday afternoon, noted Stan Harris, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Being able to host more customers on-site is helpful, he said, but restaurants’ business models are not built for 75 percent capacity. He said the industry needs another round of federal aid.
“The secret to all of this will be based on one thing: Can we continue to build the guests’ confidence that it’s safe to go out to eat?” Harris said.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said schools are ready to move to phase three. Most of the state’s schools are using a hybrid model that incorporates online and in-person learning.
Under the standards the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education established, phase three requirements for school systems differ from phase two in group size and transportation, as well as band, vocal and music limitations. For example, maximum group sizes shift from 25 individuals in phase two to 50 individuals in phase three.
“It’s more important than ever that our schools continue to implement the safety procedures they have in place, as more students will soon return to campus,” Brumley said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations and the incidence of COVID-19 symptoms have been in a steady decline, and the state positivity rate is just under 7 percent, all factors that allow the state to move from phase two to phase three under White House guidelines, said Dr. Alex Billioux with the state Office of Public Health.
But it takes about two weeks for a change in public behavior to show up in the data, and officials still are concerned that too many people may have violated mitigation guidelines over Labor Day weekend. Memorial Day weekend seems to have contributed to a spike in cases in Louisiana and several other states, officials say.
Edwards urged residents to continue to practice mitigation methods that include wearing a face covering in public, maintaining distance between themselves and others who are not part of their household, and avoiding large groups.